- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

London stores, hotels and restaurants are more decorated at Christmas than are the city’s streets. But the city is festive.

Although the pound is now worth two dollars, department stores, especially, were featuring some bargains, including half-price sales, earlier this month.

The city’s grand hotels, such as the Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly, are very expensive for Americans. At the Ritz, rooms start at $600. (Visit www.theritzlondon.com or call 877/748-9536).

Some of the best travel bargains to London are available from tours sponsored by airlines such as British Airways Vacations (www.baholidays.com). The airline (www.ba.com, 800/247-9297) operates flights to Heathrow Airport from both Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. BA is a member of the One World alliance of airlines, which includes American Airlines, but do not expect getting AA frequent-flier miles on BA tickets on trans-Atlantic flights.

I flew on BA’s 9:20 p.m. departure from Dulles on a Thursday, and only a few seats were not filled in the business-class section. That flight, on a Boeing 777, is particularly popular with business travelers.

On the return flight, which left London in midafternoon, I was happily surprised with a delicious lunch: Duchy of Cornwall sausages, mashed potatoes and carrots, a simple meal but one that was well-prepared and a triumph over the rigors of the airline cooking process. It was far superior to the overcooked beef fillet and lamb chops or desiccated fish on most airline menus. (A flight attendant on a different trans-Atlantic carrier once observed that I had eaten only one bite of the beef fillet and asked if she should take it to a cobbler.)

British Airways is offering a “3-2-1 New Year In London” ticket sale, but the travel is good through March 13. Tickets — $347 — are on sale trough Dec. 31.

The package includes round-trip airfare between Washington and London and three nights at the three-star Royal National Hotel, along with daily continental breakfast. Other hotels are available, but at higher prices. The tickets are subject to availability and do not include government fees, taxes and security fee. Call 877/428-2228.

A taxi from Heathrow into London easily costs $100 or more. Options include the subway and the Heathrow Express (about $35), which goes nonstop between the airport and Paddington Station, where rides can be shared in taxis to London destinations.

During December and well into January, London has several outdoor skating rinks, the most popular being one of the newest venues, the handsome courtyard — formerly a parking lot — of Somerset House (www.somersethouse.com) on the Strand. Most of the evening sessions have been sold out, but for adults, the cost is about $20 per person for skate rental and use of the rink. The rink also has an outdoor cafe; if the rink is full, consider visiting the Hermitage Rooms and the Gilbert Collection inside.

Across the street from the Ritz London is a new restaurant, the Wolseley (160 Piccadilly), which in its first year has been named London restaurant of the year by Harpers & Queen magazine.

The Wolseley is crowded and obviously very popular; it serves breakfast, all-day snacks and tea, and lunch and dinner. Its founders, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, also created the well-known Le Caprice and Ivy restaurants. Harper & Queen calls the Wolseley “as democratic and bustling as a neighborhood diner.”

Harper & Queen also praises the Ritz Restaurant’s new head chef: “John Williams has reintroduced a selection of classic luncheon dishes. … The dessert menu is pure theatre. … The beautiful dining room is enchanting during the day, when sunlight slides in over the Italian garden; it’s not surprising that the Queen chose to celebrate her Golden Jubilee here last summer. Cripplingly expensive, but worth it.”

It takes $2 to make 1 pound, but most London banks no longer charge withdrawal fees for using their automated teller machines to withdraw funds on another bank’s ATM card. Additionally, cards belonging to member banks of the Global ATM Alliance do not charge withdrawal fees when the funds are taken from a participating bank.

Members of the alliance include the Bank of America, Barclays Bank in the United Kingdom and Deutsche Bank, along with ATMs in Spain and Germany, BNP Paribas bank in France, and Scotiabank in Canada.

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